Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cognitive behavioural gardening

At my gardening club the other night, we went round the table in turn, saying why we liked a particular plant or would recommend it to others. One of the group, Suzanne, said she liked ivy - any ivy. She couldn't walk past ivy in a garden centre without feeling the urge to buy a new one, especially if she saw a new variety.
Ivy is by no means popular with all gardeners, particularly in small London gardens. Some people absolutely loathe it. So we were intrigued to know where Suzanne's passion for ivy came from.
She said she saw it as a backdrop for her garden, in the way that an artist will wash in a background colour before starting to paint the detail in the foreground. (Suzanne is a graphic artist.) She just couldn't imagine a garden without a glossy, green background of ivy.
I was very impressed that Suzanne could articulate so clearly why she liked ivy. Perhaps, I said, this was cognitive behavioural gardening.
I meant it as a joke, and everyone laughed, but on the way home I started thinking that perhaps cognitive behavioural therapy offered techniques that could be useful to gardeners.
For those who don't know, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is, to quote the Royal College of Psychiatrists, "a way of talking about how you think about yourself, the world and other people; and how what you do affects your thoughts and feelings. CBT can help you change how you think (cognitive) and what you do (behaviour)."
Many of us have old habits or rules that we have set for ourselves as a defence against particular situations or emotions. These particular situations or emotions may no longer exist, or may not now be relevant, or may even need to be challenged, but we still cling to our defences because we're too scared to let go of them.
CBT is a talking therapy, which means you talk (to a psychologist) about why a situation makes you feel anxious or unhappy. You don't have to delve deep into your past (although that can be helpful): all you have to do is to think about how you feel in that situation, and try to analyse precisely what it is that bothers you and why it is making you react in a particular way.
The reverse works just as well: if a situation makes you feel particularly happy or calm, stop and think about why that might be so. Ask yourself what it is about that activity or place that makes you feel good. Anyway, that, put very crudely, is the theory behind CBT.
As gardeners, we all feel that gardening makes us feel better in some way or else we wouldn't do it. There may be some chores we dislike more than others, but basically the garden is a good place to be.
However, within that good place, there can be difficult moments. For some of us, it might be getting rid of a shrub or tree that has outgrown its space, or is diseased. It could be that we just hate the sight of the thing. There is every reason in the world to bin it, yet we feel guilty about ripping it out. This is where Cognitive Behavioural Gardening (CBG) can be useful.
Don't think about how guilty you feel, or whether friends might disapprove. Think about how much happier you're going to feel when it's gone, and about what you might plant in its place.
I have a personal quirk which means that before I embark on some project in the garden, whether it is mowing the lawn or replanting a border, I have to go and buy a plant. Thanks to CBG, I've just worked out that the plant is my "reward" for doing the work. When I've finished whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing - and only then - I can plant the new addition.
Now I've worked out why I do this, I find don't need to do it any more. This is good, because it can work out quite expensive. It is cheaper to stay in the garden, and more productive to spend the time I would otherwise spend wandering around the nursery or garden centre actually getting the job done.
Another example might be seed sowing. If you get a huge kick out of seeing microscopic things sprout, and love the idea of nurturing them to maturity, then by all means sow seeds. But if you do it because you think that's what "real" gardeners ought to do, and then feel resentful about watering dozens of seedlings for the next three months, why bother?
If you're anything like me, you probably note down the names of plants you come across. I'm going to try also to note down how they make me feel. Anything that makes my heart beat faster will go to the top of the list. Anything that someone's recommended but which leaves me unmoved will be left on the shelf, no matter how floriferous, fruitful or magnificent in every way it is alleged to be. Who knows? CBG could end up saving me a lot of money.